Saturday, May 2, 2009

Turn! Turn! Turn!, Byrds (1965)

While I'm on the subject of harmony groups one of whose members later joined Crosby, Stills & Nash, and since it's Pete Seeger's 90th birthday tomorrow, I might as well give the high five to my favorite Seeger song, the Byrds' version of Turn! Turn! Turn!

It was pretty well known at the time that the song was adapted from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes by Seeger, which was quite odd for that time - or any time, really. Somehow in its mellow and melodious presentation, and with America's involvement in the war in Vietnam beginning with a vengeance, it all worked. Other than minor edits and changes in the order of certain words, the most significant revision Seeger made to the Biblical text was the "I swear it's not too late" that followed "a time for peace." He describes how it came about here.

Interesting how it got in the hands of the Byrds. When guitar virtuoso Jim aka "Roger" McGuinn was a mere slip of a boy - well a teenager actually - he was accomplished enough from playing acoustically in Chicago coffee houses to be asked to accompany the then-popular folk trio the Limeliters, who were based in L.A. but saw him perform during a visit to the area.

Although probably a natural talent, McGuinn studied hard to become proficient in the guitar and acquire a comprehensive grounding in the folk repertoire, enrolling in the Old Town School of Folk Music, where the Chicago folk music community congregated, and where he learned guitar from future Weaver Frank Hamilton. This served as his platform for subsequently mastering the 5-string banjo and his signature 12-string.

After he graduated from high school, he moved to California and for a time did work as an accompanist for the Limeliters, then for the Chad Mitchell Trio, and yet later for Bobby Darin. No slouch, he. During an interval when Darin retired temporarily from performing due to losing his voice, McGuinn was asked to work as a songwriter for Darin's music publishing company in the Brill Building in New York. In fact, McGuinn credits Darin with showing him the ropes of being a successful performer.

Moving on from there, McGuinn then recorded with the Irish Ramblers, Hoyt Axton and Simon and Garfunkel when they were still called the generic Tom & Jerry. What does any of this have to do with Turn! Turn! Turn!, the song McGuinn has said he would want to play on his 12-string Rickenbacker if he could only play one other song before he dies? I'm getting to that!

During this period, McGuinn arranged and played on Judy Collins' version of Seeger's song. Seeger had written it in 1959 and there is a 1962 recording of it on a rare live album from a Bitter End performance, Bitter and the Sweet. In due time McGuinn returned to California, intent upon establishing a solo career. He soon caught the eye of Gene Clark who, like him, felt that melding folk with the new rock beat that had blown in from England was the only response to the British Invasion's challenge to the folk music movement. Throw in young David Crosby, and soon the first three Byrds took off, later joined by Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke.

Happy birthday Pete!


cornbread hell said...

...and the day after judy collins' 70th (and my 58th!)

KarmaSartre said...

Thank you, interesting history lesson. That song never feels dated.

Wade said...

Agreed that this song always sounds great, as do the Byrds generally. I can almost forgive them for begetting the Eagles.